The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Human Research and Engineering Directorate (HRED) participated in the Northeastern Maryland Technology Council's (NMTC's) Science Café that was held at the Harford Public Library in Abington, Md., on Jan. 8.

More than 100 people were in attendance from the local community, including representatives from Harford Community College, Bel Air High School and local middle schools.

Dr. Greg Apker and Dr. Brent Lance, both neuroscience researchers from HRED, discussed the field of brain-computer interaction (BCI), which is translating a century of neuroscience research into new tools and technologies that improve everyday life.

BCI technologies use information recorded from the brain to improve the collaboration between a user and a computer system working towards a common purpose. BCIs are often directed at assisting, augmenting, or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions, including applications that aim at restoring damaged hearing, sight or movement.

"BCI research and technologies are primarily focused on prosthetics, or gaming and entertainment," said Lance. "ARL has a unique niche in that our efforts are focused on improving the performance of healthy individuals."

Research on BCIs began in the 1970s at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and has increased dramatically in the last ten years due to the availability of modern technologies for obtaining and understanding brain data.

BCI applications range from controlling prosthetic limbs through implanted electrodes, to mouse or typing applications that allow paralyzed individuals to communicate, to law-enforcement and military technologies based on image recognition. The biggest challenges in developing BCI technology have been the development of improved brain imaging and data collection technologies, and improved algorithms for decoding that data collected from the brain.

"The neuron is the functional unit of brain, producing action potentials which transmit throughout the brain and to the muscles" said Apker. "Different neurons and groups of neurons are involved in transmitting different information, such as sensory feedback, motor commands, memories, etc., and by listening carefully we can attempt to decode this activity into something more meaningful."

Tarit Jitsuriya, an 11th-grader from Bel Air, High School volunteered to demonstrate an Emotiv Epoc, which is a low cost electroencephalography (EEG) system for recording electrical activity produced by the brain.

Lance placed the Epoc on Tarit's head, and led the audience through a demonstration of the visual and spectral properties of the EEG signal, after which Tarit used the Epoc to move objects in a simple virtual environment by concentrating on them.

When asked what he thought about the experience, Tarit summed it up in three words -- "It was awesome!"

A representative from Harford Community College (HCC) was intrigued by the presentation.

"What an exciting venue, seeing STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] come alive and watching the young students thrill at the demonstrations and possible applications," said Marlene Lieb, associate vice president of continuing education and training, at HCC. "The two young scientists who presented their work easily related to their audience and ignited much enthusiasm. Harford Community College and our senior science society are proud to be members of NMTC, working together to promote STEM careers throughout the region."

This year makes the third year that NMTC has been holding Science Cafés throughout Harford County. The organizer indicated the cafés are "fun and free and open to everyone."

"It is an opportunity to learn about a specific science and technology topic that affects everyday lives and is presented by a local expert," said Dr. Nina Lamba, NMTC.